September 16, 2019

Rights of Protestors

General Assembly: Social Humanitarian & Cultural Committee (SocHum)

Topic: Rights of Protestors

Peaceful assembly as a human right has been enshrined in some national constitutions as far back as the 18th century, and on the international level, the most decisive recognition of this right can be found in the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), particularly Article 21. Nearly every country on Earth is a party to the ICCPR, meaning that it is a matter of international consensus that every member of our global community is entitled to the rights enumerated therein. Lying at the junction of the freedom of speech and the freedom of association, the right to peaceful protest is widely recognized as an essential component of a free, democratic society. And yet, when large-scale protests take place, it is frequently the case that such protests are suppressed by government authorities, citing violence or the threat or potential for violence on the part of the protesters. When violent clashes do break out, it can be difficult to determine which side bears the greatest share of responsibility.

Anti-government protests are far from a new phenomenon, and they remain a prominent feature of international political discourse. In Hong Kong, protests erupted beginning in 2019 over the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill, which spurred concerns over the city’s fragile autonomy from the mainland government. Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borisov has faced months of protests against the alleged corruption of his government and its political attacks on the Bulgarian head of state, President Rumen Radev. Thailand spent most of 2020 gripped by protests, initially opposed to the dissolution of the progressive Future Forward Party, but evolving into an overall rebuke to the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, and even a call for reforms to the Thai monarchy. Protesters in Lebanon launched what came to be known as the “October Revolution” in 2019, and they spent the next year calling for banking, tax, and general economic reform, and an end to public sector corruption and sectarian rule. The United States has also faced its share of protests in recent years, most prominently in opposition to police brutality and the administration of President Donald Trump, spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter and antifa movements. What all of these cases have in common is that the protests all begin as peaceful demonstrations, and at some critical juncture reach a tipping point into violence. The frequency and degree of violence varies, sometimes widely, from case to case, and as indicated above, it is often unclear which side is responsible.

As such, the Social, Cultural, and Humanitarian Committee faces a thorny problem. It is not as simple as reaffirming an individual’s right to peaceful protest. If it were, the ICCPR would have accomplished the job in 1966. What steps can be taken to prevent peaceful protests from spiraling into riots, or even pitched battles? Are there alternative approaches law enforcement authorities can take in their engagement with protesters, which might be less likely to result in conflict? How can the impartiality of those authorities be ensured when they are responsible to the government being demonstrated against, or in some cases, when they themselves are the object of protest? In cases where a small destabilizing element of the assembly seeks to provoke violence, in contrast to the bulk of the participants, how can the distinction between these sub-groups be most accurately drawn? And finally, what can be done to better facilitate bridging the gap between protesters and governments which find themselves entrenched on opposite sides of a political or philosophical dispute, to obviate the need for more hostile engagement? While finding answers to these questions will not be easy, it is nevertheless an essential task.

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